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Sunday, 24 November 2013 18:10

Q&A: Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio, Wayne State University

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Jack Lessenberry Jack Lessenberry

The familiar typewriter sound each day on Michigan Radio is a sign to listeners that senior political analyst Jack Lessenberry is about to deliver his unique insight into the goings on in state politics. As a Wayne State University journalism professor and contributor to countless publications, he has been able to document the various actions — and sometimes inaction — of the state’s leaders. Lessenberry, who recently lectured on “civil discourse in an age of ranting” at Grand Valley State University, talked with MiBiz about the role of civil discourse, or the lack thereof, in state and national politics.

Tell us about your recent talk on civil discourse at GVSU.

It’s a very broad topic … but I’m arguing people need to make an effort to understand each other. My thesis is that we’ve sort of lost our way as a nation. I think a big part of this happened with the fall of the Soviet Union. They suddenly disappeared, and I think we’ve had a hard time finding ourselves. The politics have become more polarized to the point where people aren’t even talking to each other and they’re talking at each other.

How do you define “civil discourse” in our political system?

I’m suggesting that civil discourse has to be thought of as more than just people being nice to people you disagree with. And at some point that’s not always called for. But in the American context, it’s about hearing each other and taking each other seriously. I think we used to do that much more in this country and in this state than we do now. If you look at the era of former-Governor (William) Milliken, there was a lot of bipartisanship. (It was similar) under (James) Blanchard. But now everyone is so completely polarized. (Politicians) see each other not as the opposition, but as the enemy. I don’t think it’s good for this country and I don’t think it’s good for democracy.

What does that lack of civil discourse mean for the business community in the state?

I think it’s just plain bad and I think there is a lot of short-sightedness. Business, to some extent, is happy with the Snyder administration, but Snyder will not always be governor. It stands to reason that at some point, the Democrats will be back in power and business sees Democrats as the enemy and it’s not going to be good for business when the Democrats get back in. So the business community needs to urge (civility) also.

What are some recent examples of that lack of civility on display?

(In late November), Mark Schauer, the Democratic candidate for governor, proposed raising the minimum wage. There was kind of a knee-jerk reaction saying, ‘Oh, this is a terrible idea.’ Well, even the (proposed) one dollar raising of the minimum wage, it would be — adjusted for inflation — much less than it was in 1968. If you always oppose, you sort of lose credibility. There’s the argument that you need a well-paid workforce. The Snyder tax reforms haven’t produced the influx of jobs that he predicted. You can also make the argument that we don’t need more low-wage jobs — we need high-tech, new economy jobs. The people that have those jobs care a lot about a good infrastructure and good schools as they do anything else. I think some business people certainly understand that, but the point is that the Democrats and the Republicans need to be talking to each other because nobody keeps power forever in this country and that’s a good thing.

You had a recent column on Michigan Radio talking about development in Detroit and how it has predominantly focused on the downtown area rather than the outside neighborhoods. Whether we are talking about Detroit or Grand Rapids, what are people doing right and wrong with urban development?

Well, I’m not an expert on development, but I know you have to do more than the core city. Detroit’s downtown is in much better shape than it was 20 or 30 years ago, but the neighborhoods are awful. Even in Grand Rapids, there are areas of the city that are not outstanding anymore, but downtown Grand Rapids is very beautiful. But if you neglect where people live, what happens is that people move out of the city and the city loses revenue. Then they raise taxes and more people leave. We’ve seen the results of that vicious circle, not only in Detroit but in a lot of other places. Sooner or later, if you have decaying neighborhoods, you’re going to lose your city no matter how palatial the downtown is.

What needs to happen?

I think both parties should be talking about that. Obviously, you need a good climate for business but you also have to make workers feel like they have a stake in the system. If you’re not paying workers enough, they’re not going to buy your products. Henry Ford recognized that 99 years ago.

Last question: Will you ever switch away from the typewriter intro for your radio segment?

I don’t do that, actually. They do it for me. I actually do use a typewriter for envelopes, if I’m writing a letter. … But I write on a laptop just like everyone else.

Read 3231 times Last modified on Friday, 22 November 2013 14:05

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